You Can Make a Difference
by Jini Kilgore Cockroft
In 2005, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote an award-winning series of articles on homelessness in Los Angeles. I had returned to my home in Los Angeles a year earlier, after being away for nearly 20 years, and it surprised me to see how much worse the problem of homelessness in L.A. had grown over the years. Deeply moved by Lopez’s articles and the devastation being wreaked on the lives of people in my beloved city, I yearned to see something done to help alleviate this huge problem. Like many people, I felt that the problem was so large that there was little that I could do to make a difference.
But I was wrong. There is always something that an individual can do, as I would soon find out. One Sunday, at about the same time that Lopez’s series was written, I had an opportunity to preach during my church’s radio broadcast worship service. I saw this as a chance to do something: I would appeal to pastors and other church leaders in our city to come together to help solve the growing problem of homelessness. I was trying to make a difference, but at the end of the worship service, an older woman in my church came to me and said that the radio appeal was not enough. She said I should do something about this issue about which I felt so strongly.
Me? What could I do? Well, I began by doing what we can all do: I prayed. Prayer led to an idea, and an idea led to action. I remembered reading some years earlier that on any given Sunday in New York’s Harlem, the churches there collected $5 million in offerings. I thought at the time that if these churches would only contribute a Sunday’s offerings once a year to a community fund, much could be accomplished to aid the poor. Thus, I called together a group of people to serve with me as a board of directors, and we formed a nonprofit organization named the Church Community Fund (CCF). The CCF would petition churches in our city to donate an offering one Sunday a year to financially support organizations in our community that worked with homeless persons.
First, we visited two ministerial bodies representing more than 200 local pastors to present our idea. We assured them that the CCF had no overhead (operating out of my home office), no paid staff, and only one expense: stamps and stationery, so almost 100 percent of what would be collected in the annual offering would go directly to the community ministries that our board of directors visited and chose.
The pastors agreed with the plan and vowed to collect an offering for the CCF on the designated Sunday. Unfortunately, however, when offering day came, far fewer churches gave than those that pledged to do so. In spite of that, the CCF lasted for three years and was able to provide generous grants to some local organizations.
I learned from this experience that a better way to get the churches to follow through with giving than by speaking before ministerial groups and writing follow-up letters to the pastors might be to identify the church’s mission leader, or some other committed person, and work with him/her because he/she would be the one most likely to spearhead such an effort in the church and see to it that the annual offering is collected. Following are some other steps that can be taken:
Create a newsletter to be distributed among the mission leaders from the various churches to let them know about each other’s involvement in the annual giving program
Sponsor an annual meeting of the mission leaders to give them an opportunity to get acquainted with one another and to have them review a list of community organizations that need funding.
Allow the mission leaders to decide to whom the funds should be given
Publicize the outcome in the newsletter and in community weekly/monthly newspapers, as well as online, highlighting the work of the local organizations
Though the CCF disbanded, it was now clear to me that there was something I—and others could do about a big, national problem that seems to keep growing.
What can we do? We can raise money for organizations like the CCF, and we can find ways to give a personal touch to include homeless persons in our lives. The nonprofit organization that I work with now, HighWay Ministries, does the latter. We have a great big house with several bedrooms where we house people (HighWay House), and a very large living room separate from the residence area that we use as a meeting room. In our meeting room, we conduct a weekly worship service and a Bible study that attract poor and homeless people.
In that same multipurpose meeting room, we serve a free weekly hot breakfast—home-style, sitting with those who come and getting to know them in an atmosphere that we try to make as warm and welcoming as possible. Once a month that room becomes a “boutique,” where we give away good and clean used and sometimes new clothes that are donated to us by people who lovingly partner with us in helping those who are in need.
In HighWay House, we address homelessness by providing low-cost rooms for rent for permanent or temporary residents. We can house up to nine people at a time, and have housed over 70 people in the past eight years.
These relatively inexpensive ministries—raising money, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and housing the poor and homeless—help people survive and overcome the ravages of poverty and homelessness. These are some ways that individuals like you and me can make a difference.
Jini Kilgore Cockroft, an ordained minister, partners with her husband Pastor Willie Cockroft at HighWay Ministries in South Los Angeles. HighWay is a non-profit public benefit corporation that serves the poor (www.hwmin.org), founded by Cockroft and her husband in 2008. She is the author of From Classism to Community: A Challenge for the Church, Judson Press, 2016.
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